Yurts shelter from the storm
Photography: Glen Allison
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The winter backcountry calls to people in many different voices. It doesn’t matter whether you’re on snowshoes, or sledding with children.
Janet Kellam, who spends at least three days a week out in the field, describes “the spiritual recharge of wandering around in the snow.” She enjoys sharing the experience with friends, and doesn’t need to make turns to have fun. She also finds the snow fascinating: “I love how it sits on trees and sparkles. I’m always seeing something I’ve never seen before. There’s always something new.” That’s saying something, for a heliski guide-turned-avalanche guru who has roamed Idaho’s south-central ranges on skis for more than twenty-five years.
Kellam led me to Kirk Bachman in Stanley, referring to him as “the father of backcountry yurts in the Rocky Mountains.” Like Bob Jonas, Bachman is a character who doesn’t need niceties himself, but realizes that most other humans do. He moved to Stanley in 1978 with a yurt he’d built while attending college. In 1985, he founded Sawtooth Mountain Guides (SMG), a year-round mountaineering service.
SMG maintains Williams Camp, the highest and most northern in the hut system. Dubbed a prime ski destination by Powder magazine, Williams allows quick access to radical terrain that’s well suited to today’s free riding. The camp consists of two yurts (and a sauna), which Bachman recently upgraded in celebration of his fiftieth birthday.
Why is he still out there after all these years? “Great skiing. Great terrain. Great camaraderie. Having home-cooked meals together.” Laughing (all of these backcountry fanatics seem to laugh a lot), he proclaims, “It works!”
Backcountry addict Chris Johnson of Boise skis off-piste more than a hundred days a year. He dreamily reminisces about skiing one day above Bench Hut in fresh snow deeper than he is tall. “I was making a few turns beneath the snow, and then popping out to see where I was going. Talk about face shots! That’s an experience you’re not going to find at a resort.”
Admitting that epic turns are just part of the fun, Johnson waxes poetic about the sunrises and sunsets and the company of friends, whom he wrangles from three or four states for annual retreats. He tries to outdo his companions in the kitchen on his assigned night of dinner duty: on one trip, his culinary apogee was a contribution of fifteen pounds of sushi. But, he laments, “It was beaten by someone who was actually a good cook.”
I spoke with Johnson in Boise last August as the thermometer was creeping toward 100 degrees. He sighed wistfully, “Those backcountry trips help get me through the long, hot Boise summer.”
If you don’t feel like cooking or skiing with a backpack full of negihama, Ann Scales of Chocolate Gulch Catering has the solution—and the menu. She prepares dinners for groups at Boulder Hut, offering specialties such as baked, curried Brie with chutney and cashews on baguette slices, and grilled lamb with a mustard-herb glaze. I don’t think the dwarfs ate that well before Snow White came along, or even after she arrived.
Back in the ’80s, Boulder Hut was the first dinner yurt in the country, rivaling Ketchum’s best restaurants; today, it’s known by locals for unique birthday and holiday parties, and arguably the best wood-fired sauna in the Valley. It’s also a great place for kids. “If they get tired on the trek in,” says Francie St. Onge, “they can just pop onto the sled.”
Everyone remembers the scene in the Disney classic in which birds tweet around Snow White’s head and deer eat out of her hand. Although locals frown on feeding the wildlife, our furry friends wander the backcountry, making appearances when it suits them. I’ve seen moose, coyotes, and elk. Snowshoe hares lay a Morse code of tracks in the snow, and wolverine prints crisscross the upper basins. At Galena, a gregarious pine marten eats well at night if we forget to hide the granola. Foxes in coats of mottled silver stand at the edge of the woods like chess pieces. Late March brings sandhill cranes to nest at the edge of the meadow on Fishhook Creek. And then there are the grouse: These normally benign birds allow falling snow to bury them for warmth and protection—but the practice also makes them easy to step on. Like feathery land mines, they wait until you ski over them. Then, as Chris Johnson says, “They shoot out of the snow and scare the hell out of you.”
But perhaps the most magical feature of the backcountry—and some might call it black magic—is the fact that, in the Sawtooths, the Smokies, the Boulders, and the Pioneers, cell phones don’t work. Don Shepler, a longtime telemark skier who makes his own sort of magic in the kitchen of CK’s Real Food in Hailey, revels in “just getting totally away. You don’t have to worry about phone messages. You can focus on having fun with the people you’re with.” He pauses, then adds with a wicked grin, “Also, diving naked into the snow after the sauna is very refreshing.”
One snowy night last winter, Marc and I snowshoed up to one of three yurts twenty or so minutes from Galena Lodge, where we work. For the guests who had ordered dinner, Marc carried an insulated backpack heavy with grilled elk steaks, tomato-basil bisque, and a loaf of fresh challah. I waded behind him through a spooky, silent world.
In the beam of his headlamp, the forest was like a dark, deserted castle with tall furniture draped in sheets.
Suddenly we saw a flicker of lanterns among the snowflakes, and heard peals of laughter. We knocked on the door, planning to hand over the pack and go, but were invited inside. Our guests pushed glasses of wine into our cold hands and made room for us close to the glowing wood stove. I immediately began dripping onto the futon; they didn’t care. An hour later, Marc and I returned through the castle of snow back to our own yurt, tipsy and light of heart.
That’s what happens in the backcountry, especially in the circle of warmth known as a yurt. Friends become closer; strangers become friends. It isn’t magic: it’s the science of population density and animal behavior. Such moments can easily carry you through the long hot spells.
Betsy Andrews lives in a yurt north of Ketchum with her dogs, Junebug and Pezzo Marie; her cat, Tesserwell; and her person, Marc. Her mother actually approves.